As Passover approaches, I’d love to share some of our “tried and true” tips for engaging your child at the seder. I’ll frame these tips around Rabbi Joy Levitt’s “Ten Tips for Meaningful Seders”. Joy is the Executive Director here at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan as well as a co-author of a fantastic hagaddah. Interspersed with Joy’s tips I will add a few ways of how to “do this” with your young children. The "numbered" lines below are Joy's original tips; the "lettered" lines under each number are my tips for young children.
Remember: the mitzvah is to tell the story, not to read the Haggadah
Here is the version of the story our teachers use in our PreK classrooms.
Go back to the source – read the Biblical version for yourself! Knowing the story is a huge factor in helping your child navigate the Seder.
Chabad offers this helpful “story in a nutshell”, or you can always consult the Torah!
There is no definitive “start” or “end”, as the narrative really encompasses a huge swath of Ancient Israelite history – but if you’re up for it, begin by opening up the Book of Exodus. Chapter 1 – Pharoah enslaves the Israelites; Chapter 3 – Moses sees the Burning Bush; Chapter 5 – “Let my people go”; Chapters 7-12 – plagues (there’s a lot of them!); Chapter 12 Verse 33 – Matzah!; Chapter 14 – Crossing the Red Sea.
Engaging children in the preparation--setting the table, preparing the Seder plate, placing name cards and haggadot at seats--helps them feel a part of the Seder.
This is HUGE for young children. Engage them in as many parts of this as you can. And make it fun – see if siblings can race against each other to do the forks vs the spoons. Or have them “hide” something sneaky on the table – i.e., place plastic frogs under a bowl. Then celebrate their contributions at the Seder – at the beginning of the meal, have all the guests take a second to say Thank You to each person who helped set the table. It shows your child that they have a real meaningful place at the Seder table.
There is no rule that says the Seder has to be at the dining room table. Consider beginning in the living room where children have more freedom and are less likely to think about food. (Note: make sure you cover your carpets and consider using a bento box for Seder foods like parsley and charoset).
For your older children you can draw the parallel for them of “Exodus” – just like the Jews move from one place to another during the story, so will we move from one place to another during the Seder.
For young children, this is more plainly just a good way to keep them engaged, by moving from one setting to another.
For all children, you can have them “pack their belongings” like the Israelites did. “OK is everybody ready for the exodus? Make sure you have your fork, your plate, and your napkin! Let’s go!”
Use the moment of Karpas--dipping parsley into salt water--as an opportunity to bring out more dips--guacamole, salsa, etc. and raw vegetables. This is entirely consistent with the rabbis' understanding of the seder as an imitation of the Roman banquet and will buy you at least 15 minutes of seder time before guests (including adults) starting clamoring for dinner.
I think this one speaks for itself! Involve your child in the prep for some of these dips – create shopping lists, have them help mash avacados, etc.
In advance, take a look at the web for fun videos for children about Passover and start showing them to your children. Same with music.
Check out the “Bible Players” (yes, it’s real, and yes, they’re awesome!) here here and here.
Look for “Early Childhood Singing Seder Story”, a playlist on Spotify.
A great Sephardic custom involves children (or adults) walking around the table swatting the backs of guests with scallions to simulate the oppression of the Jews.
OK I’ll be honest, I have no idea how to help you with this one other than…try it!
Check out the play in the back of A Night of Questions (Levitt and Strassfeld) for a fun way to present the story of the exodus.
This is mostly for older children but you get the point – get into dramatic play! All of your children have been doing this already at school this week. Provide your children with a list of characters – Pharoah, Moses, Aaron, Yocheved (Pharoah’s daughter), God (!) – and ask which they’d like to play during the Seder. Don’t worry if they all choose the same character – go with it – and you can give them “lines” to say from the Haggadah at various points throughout the Seder.
The central point of the Seder is to ask questions because that was the rabbis’ definition of freedom. Encourage your children not only to learn the “four” questions but to think of one new question themselves.
This is an excellent one for your young learners! They’re all about questions! Check here for an earlier note of mine dedicated to young children’s questions around Passover.
One way to encourage team work with looking for the afikomen is to hide multiple pieces of matzah in envelopes with each child’s name on it. All the pieces have to be found before the Seder can continue.
And, then reverse this – have the children hide it for the grownups – and watch as hilarity ensures!
Remember: the mitzvah is to “teach your child.” You are modeling the best of experiential Jewish education when you lead a Seder. If you love it, so will they!
Which is to say – just be yourself and try your best to enjoy it all. If you can – let the tension with in-laws evaporate, forget about work, ignore the mess the matzah is making – just let go of it all and let your children watch you having fun at the seder. Nothing – nothing! – matters more to them then what you’re up to. The biggest takeaway they can get here is that you had fun, and that is their best invitation to have fun too.